- Walter Novak
- Tom (left) and Tim: "You could title this 'When Bowling Was King,'" says Tom.
Even for Cleveland, where abandonment is the norm, 30th and Chester is eerily quiet. Old factories and warehouses not worth knocking down guard the empty street, where a Wendy's cup skips along in its best imitation of a tumbleweed.
Around here, foot traffic is a myth. The only evidence of man sans car is the occasional urine splotch on a building.
On a corner, a red-brick structure with an old fiberglass sign reading "Twin Lanes Bowling" fits the prevailing motif. No light or sound escapes the painted windows. One would assume there hasn't been a split cursed here in 10 years.
But inside, the clatter of pins accompanies the bland aroma of stale nacho cheese. The alley, with cluttered bar and billiards nook, is all speckled blue carpet, linoleum, and the type of wood that comes in a roll. Yet you won't find synthetic lanes here. These are still maple and pine, available for use at two bucks a game.
To an old-school bowler, this is paradise. To Tom and Tim Menge, it's a living — if you can call it that.
"People tell us, 'Man, you got the bowling alley from the '60s. It's like stepping back in time,'" says Tom. "That's fine, but it don't pay the bills."
The rotund, sixty-year-old twins survey their alley from behind the cashier's desk like half-submerged gophers. The only way to tell them apart is how they've dealt with identical hair loss: Tim wears a comb-over plastered to the top of his head; Tom allows the diminutive hairs to spring loosely. Or you could strike up a conversation. Tom is amiable and honest. Tim, whether guarded or plain uninterested, says exactly nothing. "It's not true that Tim is the quieter one," Tom insists. "He just works harder; ain't got time to play around."
Everyone working here is family. Chrissy, cracking open Miller Lites behind the bar, is the twins' niece. Tom, a former vagabond now screwing trophies together, is their nephew. Family members come and go, falling back on the place when they need work. This is the modest legacy of Frank Menge, the Menge brothers' father and a hearty German truck driver known for his generosity.
According to legend, it all started when Frank was found sleeping along a Missouri road fifty years ago. He had been sitting in the passenger's seat of a commercial 16-wheeler when his partner drove off the road. Both flew through the windshield. After being shaken awake by the cops, Frank vowed to get out of trucking.
In '57, he bought an alley on 68th and Superior. "He had zero dollars in the bank," says Tom. But the brazen bank loan was testament to the popularity of bowling in Cleveland. An alley was seen as a surefire investment. While baseball might have been the national pastime, bowling was how blue-collar America passed its time.
These were the days when every neighborhood had an alley. People would spend six hours at these de facto community centers on a league night, then stick around to watch the next league, drinking 50-cent Buds, smoking unfiltereds, and shooting the shit.
Buoyed by good business, Frank upgraded in '68, purchasing a better place on 30th and Chester. The surrounding neighborhood was still brimming with industry. Nearby companies like General Electric and Bearing Manufacturing provided leagues. A few years later, Frank bought a repair shop on the ground floor and converted that, ending up with a 40-lane, 44,000-square-foot mecca. These were the days when Bowling for Dollars still played on local TV, and raucous customers spilled from Twin Lanes' doors.
The sport would soon begin its decades-long descent. But that was impossible for Frank and his twin 20-year-old sons to foresee. Tom and Tim were addicted to the sport, throwing up to a hundred games a week. Tim was especially prodigious with his 16-pound Manhattan-brand ball, averaging a 200 score at age 14. "There wasn't anybody in the city he was afraid to bowl," says Tom.
The brothers raked in cash — Tim earned an estimated $100,000 in state tournaments before he turned 21. And they made their passion irrevocable when they both dropped out of Cleveland State, enticed by the lure of tourney purses. "I won $40,000 in one tournament, and it spoiled me," says Tom.
In the late '70s, they went pro, joining the PBA tour. If you listen to Tom, that's when bowling turned on them. Three meals a day in these environs can sabotage one's physique. "Eating bowling-alley food ruined our lives," says Tom.
Lumbering through alleys in Vegas, Chicago, and Dallas, the Menges tipped the scales past 250, their 5-foot-11-inch frames resembling the bottom-heavy pins they sought to destroy. Meanwhile, they kept their jobs at the alley — one would compete on a weekend, while the other tended the shop back in Cleveland. Tom lasted six years in the PBA, and Tim three. Neither made more than $12,000 a year as a pro.
"We were washed up at 31," says Tom. He nods at his brother, waddling cumbersomely to fix a guttered pin. "Look at the way he walks. Can you be a good bowler walking like that?"
So they returned to Twin Lanes for good, taking over for Frank. Time had boiled their lives down to two things: bowling and each other. They lived together and still do — moving from their childhood home a few blocks from the alley only when freeway construction forced them out.
"The worst part about it is, neither of us got married," says Tom. "So we don't have nobody to leave the bowling alley to. We're married to the bowling alley."
By the '80s, bowling had irrevocably plunged from popularity. Tom blames TV and video games, drunk-driving laws, the cigarette ban, and even health clubs. Bowling, after all, was once considered a form of exercise.
In the past 40 years, the number of alleys in Cuyahoga County has dwindled from 150 to 27. As leagues fell from favor, the industry tried to cater to casual players. The new alley wasn't a smoke-filled monument to pleasure after the 7-to-3 shift, but a gleaming cave featuring laser lights, Top-40 hits blasting over stereo systems, and more-popular sports playing on big-screen TVs.
A short jog away, the Corner Alley presents the sport's best efforts at modernity. The ironic after-work hot spot on East Fourth features glossy plastic lanes, a martini menu, and an executive chef overseeing Cobb salads. To Tom, it's as if Warehouse District yuppies erected a burlesque chapel to his solemn religion.
"A true bowler will not go to a martini bar," he says. "Going there is more of a night out than participating in a sport."
The twins aren't exactly eager to embrace the changing face of bowling. They finally gave in to automatic scoring just a few years ago, but their lanes remain real wood, even as most alleys switch to synthetic materials to increase scoring. "The cost of synthetic is another $100,000, and we ain't gonna do that," says Tom.
In '03, Frank died, leaving the alley to his sons. The way Tom talks, it's beginning to look more like a life sentence than an inheritance. "I think we both burned out on bowling," he says. Asked if he still loves the game, Tom is glib: "Not no more. It's a job."
Yet Twin Lanes has still beaten the odds by staying open for this long. The brothers' unexpected savior: black people.
The alley's clientele has gone from mostly white to almost 90 percent black. For Tom, it's clear why black people seek out Twin Lanes. "Go into a black neighborhood," he says. "Is there a bowling alley there? Most likely, no."
This is home to Cleveland's oldest black league, the Continental, which formed in 1963. "Most of us are retired city workers on a fixed income," says founding member Al Elder. "We don't wanna pay $13 million to bowl."
On league nights, the customers aren't all that different from the days when Frank ran the alley. They're loud working folk, who bring their own balls, wear team jackets, and consider league night the height of the social calendar. Weekends attract the drunken pre-clubbing crowd, with guys wearing gravity-defying designer jeans, huge tees, and carefully skewed Chief Wahoo hats. It's hard to see Frank comprehending customers who chug cans of Crunk juice.
The new customer base has kept Twin Lanes afloat, but the twins know that the old-school bowling alley is a species marching toward extinction. "Do I think that we're going to be here in another 10 years?" asks Tom. "No."
Then he adds, suddenly smiling: "But we might be the last ones standing."